Realm Of Darkness (2022) by Paul Doherty

“My friend,” Philip pointed to his henchman, “whenever you can, wherever you can, however you can.” Philip fell silent.
“Yes, your Grace?”
“Kill Corbett.”

1312, and Amaury de Craon, King Philip of France’s Master Of Secrets, is dispatched to England to seize the Glory of Heaven, a massive diamond that belonged to the Templars before their fall. It resides in St Michael’s, a Benedictine abbey near the forest of Ashdown, protected by a sealed cage and a constant guard inside. The diamond soon disappears and the guard is murdered – without the cage being opened – but de Craon seems just as surprised as anyone by the theft.

But Philip’s plans extend far beyond such a simple scheme. With his daughter Isabella, Edward II’s queen, about to give birth, there is the potential for Philip’s heirs, and therefore Philip himself, to claim dominion over most of Europe. One man has constantly stood in the way of his plots – Sir Hugh Corbett, the Keeper of the Secret Seal – and enough is enough. De Craon has many orders from his ruler but one thing is clear: Corbett must die!

I was having a discussion the other day about the nature of crime fiction awards. I have two specific bugbears – one is the lack of any award specifically for “proper” mysteries and the other is for the way that certain authors and eras tend to be overlooked for “historical mystery” awards. Medieval mysteries are rarely brought up – the CWA historical dagger was set in 1967 which surely compares better to a modern mystery that one set in the days of arrows and swords – and that bothers me, not least because my favourite historical mystery writers – Paul Doherty, Michael Jecks and L C Tyler – tick both of these boxes and simply don’t get the attention they deserve.

Right, rant over, let’s take a look at this book.

Locked room fans should take note that there are in fact three impossible crimes in this book, not one – there’s also an impossible poisoning and a good old-fashioned stabbing behind a locked door. They’re all nicely done with simple-to-understand solutions (something that isn’t always the case in such stories) – I sussed the poisoning quite quickly – but this isn’t the sort of story where everything hinges around the locked room. There is so much going on in this tale that it’s hard to know which aspect of the plot to concentrate on. It’s something of a Tour de Force from Paul as he demonstrates his ability to keep multiple plates spinning in the air while baffling the read as to who is responsible for what, but never confusing the reader as to the facts of the case.

Let’s take a look at the central character, Sir Hugh Corbett, now in his twenty-third outing (plus two novellas). He’s a prime example of how Paul can bring the past to life. It’s very easy to paste twenty-first century morals onto an historical character, but Corbett is a man of his time. Despite being a devout Christian, he is necessarily ruthless and pragmatic – punishment is swiftly dealt out but he is willing to compromise for the greater good. His allies, Ranulf and Megotta (making a welcome reappearance from the last book, Mother Midnight) are necessarily more ruthless, but Corbett is a game-player, knowing exactly how to manipulate events to achieve his results. Here he has to tread extra carefully, as there is a spy in his camp, just as he has, possibly, a spy in de Craon’s retinue. There’s a lovely contrast between how Corbett deals with the various miscreants in the finale, but I’ll say no more about that.

Long time readers will be pleased to see that we get a little more insight into Corbett’s nemesis. At times, he’s been a bit of a background malevolence but here he gets a little more development and things are set up at the end with everything in a very interesting situation indeed…

One more thing before I stop singing… no, bellowing praise in this book’s direction. It. Has. Clues. Every revelation is justified, the responsibility for every villainous deed can be deduced, and one particular clue is just beautiful. It’s right out of the Big Book Of How To Misdirect and it worked a treat.

Can I nitpick something? Well, the tagline on the cover is rubbish – Corbett is hardly going to confront bunnies and unicorns in his fight for justice, is he? But that’s real nitpicking for what is an outstanding historical mystery that brings the past to vivid life – and death!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – fans of mystery novels need to try some Paul Doherty. If you’re not already a convert, then go back and try one of the earlier Corbett novels – all of them from The Prince Of Darkness are outstanding (and the first four aren’t bad either). And then go and read the Brother Athelstan and Judge Amerotke books. And then the rest…

Realm Of Darkness is out now in hardback and ebook from Headline.

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